HC Deb 05 March 1834 vol 21 cc1172-7
Sir Thomas Freemantle

moved that the Bill for disfranchising the Borough of Stafford be read a second time. He contended that the evidence taken before the Committee proved there was no nucleus in Stafford for the formation of an independent and honest constituency. He should be happy if any other course could be devised to satisfy the House; but he, at the same time, did not believe that further inquiry would lead to any beneficial result. It might, perhaps, be said that a case had not been made out for disfranchising this borough; but if it were proved, as it undoubtedly was, that a majority of the electors of this borough had been guilty of bribery and corruption, he should like to know what other course could be followed than that which he proposed? The number of electors of all classes who voted at the last election for Stafford was 1,049, and of that number at least four-fifths were proved to have received money. It would, however, be for the House to determine whether that were a sufficient proportion to justify the disfranchisement of the borough. When the House had determined on purifying the constituency of the country generally—when nomination and rotten boroughs had been put an end to—he should like to know whether, in a case like the present, the interests of private individuals ought to stand in the way of the public good. If the House refused to interfere in the case of Stafford, hundreds of similar cases would in all probability occur; and unless they put down corruption by vigorous means the reforms which had been effected would soon become a dead letter. The hon. Baronet then moved that this Bill be read a second time.

Mr. Halcombe

hoped the same justice that was dealt out to other boroughs would be granted to the borough of Stafford. His principal object, in rising, was to call the attention of the House to a distinction that existed between this case and the case of the other boroughs against which corruption had been alleged. In the case of the borough of Stafford no Election Committee had sat, and the evidence, which was heard by the Select Committee that had been appointed to inquire into the matter, was not given under the obligation of an oath. The Report, however, bore as hardly upon the sitting Members as it did upon the voters, and, if the intention was to act fairly, the one should not be punished, and not the other. But he would put it to the House whether it were right to found a measure so penal in its nature as the present, on testimony given in the manner he had described?

Captain Chetwynd

said, that in justice to the constituency he had the honour to represent, he should feel it his duty to oppose the Motion of the hon. Baronet for the second reading of this Bill. The Report on which it was founded was full of inaccuracies, and this would be manifest on the face of it to any hon. Gentleman who was at the trouble of reading it. In the first place, it was untrue that a sufficient opportunity had been afforded by the Committee to rebut the charges. He had himself applied for the names of the witnesses who had been examined, but it was not until after the lapse of two or three days that an imperfect list was furnished him. He meant no disrespect to the Committee by this statement, and merely used it as a fact among others to show that full justice had not been done to the parties inculpated by the Report. Again, it was not, as the hon. Baronet stated, true that a majority of the electors had accepted bribes. The number out of the 1,049 voters who had been proved to have acted corruptly did not exceed 344. The hon. Member quoted the evidence at considerable length, and commented on it to show, that it was in many particulars most inaccurate. He then observed, that because a minority had been guilty of disreputable conduct, to punish the majority, on whom no imputation could rest, would be a great injustice. He must say, that such a proceeding would be most unjust. Severity of punishment was not, however, the best way of correcting abuses, or putting a stop to bribery; and if, therefore, instead of disfranchising the borough, they were to augment the number of the constituency, they would accomplish all that could be desired. The greater part of the voters were anxious to vindicate themselves from the imputation of corruption which had been alleged against them, and it was by them suggested in two peti- tions which they had presented to that House that the best mode of correcting the abuse complained of would be to comprehend within the limits of the borough the inhabitants of the town and parish of Stone, and of another place near Stafford. By such a course bribery at all future elections would be effectually prevented. But was it not clear that if this Bill were passed, it would establish a most dangerous precedent? It would, in fact, decide that any borough in which ever so small a number of voters were venal enough to accept bribes should be on that account—and notwithstanding the great majority of the voters had acted purely—disfranchised. This would be a monstrous doctrine to lay down, and, therefore, he hoped the House would reject the hon. Baronet's Motion. But there was another reason why this measure should not be carried. The hon. member for Bradford (Mr. Hardy) had avowed his intention to introduce a Bill for preventing bribery at elections, and if that measure were passed the hon. Baronet's Bill would be rendered unnecessary. He moved, as an Amendment, that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire further into the extent of the imputed corruption in the borough of Stafford.

Mr. Ord

could not recollect any attempt to make out a case that had so signally failed as that which was made on the present occasion. There had been a total failure of the attempt to impeach the credibility of the witnesses; and, in his opinion, the Committee succeeded in laying before the House sufficient grounds for the entire disfranchisement of the borough of Stafford—a mode of dealing with the matter infinitely preferable to any extension of the franchise to the adjoining district, or to any towns in the neighbourhood; besides, if they did not adopt that course, they would lose a good opportunity of setting an example that might, and he was sure would, be beneficial to the country at large,—that would act as a warning to electors, and be received as an evidence of the value which a Reformed Parliament set upon the suffrages of unbought and independent electors. He, therefore, hoped that the Bill, as it at present stood, might pass into a law.

Mr. Fryer

contended, that they could not have a better constituency than that which might be derived from the union of Stafford, Stone, and Eccleshall; and He should therefore vote, not for total disfranchisement, but for the extension of the franchise to those places. Not that he had the slightest objection to see every one of those persons disfranchised who could be proved guilty of bribery; but he should not, on that account, deprive honest men of the right of voting. Accordingly, he should give his support most cordially to any proposition for enabling those places jointly to return a Member to Parliament.

Mr. Edward Buller

was well acquainted with the borough of Stafford, and perfectly concurred in the opinion, that equal weight was not to be given to evidence not taken upon oath, as to that which was sworn to; but he could not agree with the hon. member for Newport (Mr. Ord), that the witnesses were reluctant ones. The fact was, that Stafford was the very hot-bed of dissension. They were there ready to tear each other to pieces, to inflict deathblows for the gratification of their personal animosities. William Dudley's evidence was opposed. He had stated he never was bribed, which was contrary to an hon. Member's assertion. Biddulph's evidence was in opposition; but Biddulph came forward from party feeling. In the contest it was, he admitted, strange that Mr. Blount should have had 161 votes, and Mr. Chetwynd, who was so nearly connected with the town, only 121. Mr. Blount had not been much known. He was the agent of a nobleman, Lord Stafford, who did not reside there. All the objections that could be mooted would be obviated by the junction of the neighbourhood from which, as had been before stated, a pure constituency might be obtained. Warwick and Stafford, it was admitted, were equally guilty. And why, then, should Stafford be treated with greater forbearance? Treating and bribery, he considered, were equally criminal. He saw no difference in the shade of guilt of him who gorged himself with ale and hot suppers, and those who felt the gold and spent it at home. One, indeed, might be considered more brutal than the others. In Warwick 4,990l. was spent in twenty-eight public houses. Ought that to be passed unnoticed? Was it, indeed, because there was a noble Lord in the case who looked proudly from his castle walls on the scene of so much corruption?—who came, like Jupiter, in golden showers upon the town; who objected to the incorporation of Leamington with it, in which he evinced some taste and charity; for youth, beauty, and health, should not be wedded to the decrepitude of age. In conclusion, considering there would be no difficulty in finding an adequate constituency in the neighbourhood of Stafford, he should oppose its disfranchisement.

Mr. Ward

confessed, that he had entered the House with no little curiosity to hear what the hon. and gallant member for Stafford would say in defence of that borough; and, though he must admit, that his hon. and gallant friend had taken up and handled, with the greatest ability, every point that could be urged in favour of his case, his hon. friend's arguments had not had the effect of shaking his opinion upon the merits of the case. He really thought that, after the ample inquiry which had been devoted to this subject, both in the Committee above-stairs and by the House, there could not remain any grounds for a division of sentiment. He would, therefore, not detain the House with any discussion, though there were one or two points on which he could not but make a remark. In reference to the witness Biddulph, whose character had been called in question in the course of those discussions, he must say, he thought the treatment that individual had experienced was hardly worthy of that House. With regard to the alleged case of a stolen watch, he (Mr. Ward), as one of the Committee, had been deputed to investigate the matter; and, being so appointed, had pushed his inquiries until he really was ashamed of going any further. There really was not the shadow of a ground for the accusation. He had now only one observation to urge against retaining to Stafford its elective franchise, and that was, the difficulty of finding a constituency for that borough. An hon. baronet had stated, that there were 434 unimpeachable freemen in that borough. He was not prepared to admit this; he did not wish to assume the guilt of any of those individuals; yet, on the other hand, he did not feel inclined to assume the innocence of all of them. Some of the witnesses before the Committee, when asked upon this point, said there might be 300, others 200, voters in the town above taking a bribe; perhaps, even the latter number might be beyond the fact. Now, the propriety of including neighbouring places in the elective franchise of any corrupt borough must depend upon the extent of corruption existing in that borough. If it was entirely corrupt, the infusion of a little pure blood would not be enough to reanimate its healthy functions. His hon. friend on the other side of the House had certainly made out a very bad case against Warwick; but he had also made a very bad case for Stafford. All his arguments went to show was, that Warwick was as bad or worse than Stafford, and should share the same fate. He hoped that it would turn out so, when the case of Warwick came before the House in Committee that evening. His hon. and gallant friend's pathetic appeal, on the ground that Stafford was a county town, he thought of no validity. The very circumstance of Stafford being a county town rendered it a more fitting case to make an example of. He should, therefore, give his hearty concurrence to the Motion before the House.

Mr. Forster

thought, that if there were sufficient evidence to attach a charge of corruption and dereliction of duty on any of the electors of the borough of Stafford, the Attorney-General should have been instructed to proceed against such persons for their offence, rather than bring the case thus generally and confusedly before that House. What had that House done in the prosecution of this inquiry? Why, so far from punishing the offending parties for their misconduct, they had actually passed a Bill of Indemnity in favour of all those who gave evidence in proof of misdeeds in which they had themselves participated. He must urge the House not to disfranchise the whole borough of Stafford, interesting as it was by its association with the name of Sheridan, because some part of its constituency had misbehaved themselves; but rather to follow the same course as they were about to adopt in regard to the borough of Warwick, where great bribery had been proved to exist, that of increasing, rather than destroying, its elective constituency.

The House divided on the Amendment: Ayes 5; Noes 167—Majority 162.

The Bill Was read a second time.